14th August 2012
We hear and read about the misery and grief within maximum security prisons in other countries and often find it hard to believe that such torture, abuse, and inhumane living conditions really do exist. Yet, we don’t have to look too far or explore the rest of the world to realize that the U.S. has its share of darkness, as well.
Sometimes referred to as the “Alcatraz of the South,” Angola was one of four plantations, a total 18,000 acres owned by wealthy slave trader Isaac Franklin and sold by his widow in the late 1800’s. Opening in 1901, the Angola prison plantation name was changed to Louisiana State Penitentiary (LSP), removing its identification with the country in Africa and the stigma of an ugly past of black slavery. Surrounded by the Mississippi River on three sides, LSP at the foot of the Tunica Hills is the largest maximum security prison in the U.S. with more than 5,000 inmates, 1,800 staff members, an execution chamber which once stored the state’s electric chair “Gruesome Gertie,” and death row cells for any man awaiting execution in Louisiana. Solitary confinement here is actually divided into three levels – extended lockdown, a special unit called Camp J, and the “dungeon” or simply the “hole,” politely referred to by prison officials as administrative segregation. Robert King served 29 years in solitary, although insisting he was innocent of the crime. Now free, he has filmed a documentary Land of the Free describing the unspeakable horrors he witnessed at Angola.
The name may have changed, but conditions remained intolerable well into the 1930’s until numerous, horrifying incidents of murder, riots, rebellion, and vicious brutality reached the media and led to reports by former inmates, public officials, and journalists – even the ABA became involved in the desperate need for prison reform. Stephen King’s book and movie, the Green Mile, were based in part on death row conditions in the ‘30’s, and Dead Man Walking was partially filmed here.
Visitors will see evidence of prison reform and dramatic changes in the conditions and environment of the once notorious Angola prison. The penitentiary today more closely resembles a plantation “Farm” where crops are cultivated by inmates, technically not slaves, cattle graze, and every effort is made toward self-sufficiency with a sugar mill, dairy, and several manufacturing facilities. Prison guards on horseback act as overseers of the work being done, often by inmates from other prisons, as Angola’s population is aging and unable to work in the fields. Named for the red paint on the straw hats of field workers, the Red Hat cell block housing the worse incorrigibles was closed until June 2012 when it reopened for viewing as a national historic site. Most inmates live in dormitories rather than separate cells according to the level of security required. Some of these are minimum custody units for prisoners who have earned trustee status through good behavior. Recreational facilities are provided including exercise yards, a gym, a lake and park where trustees and prisoners with no major discipline issues can fish, picnic, and barbeque, as well as the only prison nature preserve in the U.S.
There are several chapels on the property, and Warden Cain is very much involved with religious services at the prison and in the community. Once a year Angola sponsors the Returning Hearts celebration with carnival rides, basketball, food, and quality time for fathers to reconnect with their children for eight hours. Malachi Dads is a separate program, currently about 119 men, which offers a year long training session in parenting skills with emphasis on the teachings of the Bible. Adult education and vocational classes are offered, along with degrees in Ministry for a select few, although most inmates are serving life without parole and will have no opportunity to use these skills on the outside. Angola has always encouraged music and many songs and folklore of the plantation era have been written and performed by legendary musicians such as the Lomax brothers. Several others actually served time at Angola (many received pardons) including Leadbelly, Freddy Fender, the Neville brothers, and ex-con and famous blues musician Robert Pete Williams.
The main event at LSP is the annual prison rodeo which began in 1965 as an open arena established primarily to entertain prisoners and staff. Now, it is a full-scale tourist attraction with covered grandstands, thousands of spectators, and prison bands. Rodeo events include barrel racing, bull riding, wild horses, convict poker, and other unusual challenges. Angola has brought in even more fans since the rodeo at Huntsville, TX closed in 1986 and the arena demolished this year. An all-day Arts & Crafts festival with vendors, food, and entertainment adds to this event. Visitors spend a carefree day knowing they are free to return home after the fun is over. Very few gain any understanding of the prison and its inmate population, and have little interest in learning about the unknown, having never experienced prison life.
Dates: Every Sunday in October, Festival 9am – 5pm, Rodeo at 2pm. Tickets: $15. Inmate hobby crafts for sale.
Established in 1995 by Warden Bull Cain, the LSP museum has preserved much of the history of Angola obtained from inmates, officials, and historians.
Hours: Mon-Fri, 8am-4:30pm, Sat, 9am-5pm, Sun, 1pm-5pm. Closed New Years, Christmas, Thanksgiving, Easter, and July 4. Admission: Free, donations welcome. Gift shop onsite.
Yet, even with improvements and reform, the casual tourist or curiosity seeker may still sense the grief and sadness of confinement, the cries for help and compassion that never came, but still linger in shadowy corners of these prison walls. A memorial at the prison cemetery stands alone for the Unknown Prisoners, those poor, nameless souls who had no one to care whether they lived or died.
Getting there: Located 22 miles northwest of St Francisville, LA, 20 miles from Centreville, MS, approximately 50 miles from Baton Rouge.
(Note: Some years the Mississippi River will rise and flooding in the area can be a real problem.)
Sharon L Slayton